Lesson from Sharks: How small businesses can survive the COVID crisis

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It is not survival of the smartest or the fittest, but the most adaptable. Can small businesses survive the COVID lockdown by being super-adaptable?

Backbone of the economy but short-lived

Small businesses are the backbone of the Canadian economy, employing 70% of people in the private workforce and contributing to 42% of our gross domestic product (GDP).[1] Unfortunately, most small businesses are running very lean with little margins, few clients, and low reserve. When bad things happen, they are often amongst the hardest hit. They are unlikely to be the winners of the survival race. More than half of small businesses will not have a chance to celebrate their 10-year anniversary.[2]

The COVID pandemic has worsened their chance of survival. The number of business closures during the pandemic has increased from an average of 39,000 monthly to 88,187 in April 2020 (126%). The largest increases in business closures from April 2019 to April 2020 were from accommodation and food services (274%), other services (264%), and retail trade (218%). [3]

Survival of the super-adaptable

Change is constant. It might be something on your radar or something coming out of the blue. Most of the time, it is something you have no control over. It is an adapt-or-die situation. Can your business pivot quickly when changes happen? It is not survival of the smartest or the fittest, but the most adaptable. Dinosaurs went extinct after an asteroid strike, while sharks have managed to survive four big mass extinction events just by being super-adaptable.[4]

It is difficult to generalize sharks’ adaptations. There is such a wide variety of shark species that live everywhere, in deep water, shallow water, cold water, warm water, and even occasionally freshwater. They survived mass extinction simply because there will always be some small pocket of them somewhere.[5]

E-commerce explosion

The demand for e-commerce has exploded during the lockdown and will continue to gain popularity in the future. To be super-adaptable, small businesses need to quickly embrace the digital adoption and maximize their online sales and promotion efforts. Digital adoption enables small businesses to increase their visibility, expand their customer bases, and operate with unrestricted hours and locations, potentially reaching customers anytime and anywhere.

Our research program, Building Small Business Resilience, is dedicated to equipping underrepresented small businesses with essential digital marketing skills to be super-adaptable in response to the COVID crisis. The 12-week, hands-on training program will focus on how to plan and execute an end-to-end digital marketing campaign using websites, e-commerce, and social media so your business can survive and thrive in the new normal.

Join our training program here.


[1] Government of Canada. (November, 2019). Key Small Business Statistics – November 2019. Retrieved from https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/061.nsf/eng/h_03114.html#5.1

[2] Government of Canada. (2019). Key Small Business Statistics – January 2019. Retrieved from https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/061.nsf/eng/h_03090.html

[3] Statistics Canada. (August, 2020). Monthly Business Openings and Closures: Experimental Series for Canada, the Provinces and Territories, and Census Metropolitan Areas. Retrieved from https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/11-626-x/11-626-x2020014-eng.htm

[4] Joel, L. (June, 2019). The secrets of how sharks survived so many of Earth’s mass extinctions. Retrieved from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232360-900-the-secrets-of-how-sharks-survived-so-many-of-earths-mass-extinctions/#ixzz6qRSCiFbd https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24232360-900-the-secrets-of-how-sharks-survived-so-many-of-earths-mass-extinctions/#:~:text=As%20a%20group%2C%20sharks%20have,dinosaurs%2C%20older%20even%20than%20trees.

[5] Kent, L. (November, 2019). How sharks outlived dinosaurs and adapted to suit their environment. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/28/world/shark-evolution-to-suit-environment-scn

Sujinda Hwang-Leslie
Sujinda Hwang-Leslie
Professor of Marketing in Sheridan Pilon School of Business

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